This blog post is the second part in a three part series about my Golden Week 2014 road trip to Shikoku. Golden Week falls during late April/early May every year and consists of 4 national holidays: Showa no Hi (Showa Day), Kenpo Kinenbi (Constitution Memorial Day), Midori no Hi (Greenery Day), and Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day, also known as Boys’ Day).
I love road trips, although I’m not really sure why. What’s so great about being buckled into a small, confined space for hours on end? And while I’m thinking about it, how about this food for thought: your body is literally hurling down the highway at 60-70 mph (in the odd circumstance that you’ve got a sensible driver behind the wheel) while you’re surrounded by dozens of other cars most likely captained by unsafe drivers sexting their boyfriends or laughing at cat memes. Basically, I need to do some serious reflection on why it is that I enjoy such a dangerous and masochistic activity.
Anyway, that’s all beside the point. If you’ve been following my blog (thanks, friends!), you may recall a post from a few weeks back (okay, maybe more like a month now – oops!) that I wrote about one day of my 2014 Golden Week road trip to Shikoku. I can’t remember if I mentioned it in my last post, but Shikoku is a little off the beaten path, at least for most foreign tourists to Japan. Not to sound too stuck-up, but that was part of the thrill for me.
So, in my last Shikoku post I touched on some of the culture, history, and beauty of Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture. Today I’ll be writing about Tokushima – the first prefecture that you enter when driving into the island from the Kansai region. (Side note: I’m no geography expert, but the Kansai region is basically south-central Honshu. Think Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe.) My road trip buddies and I stopped in Tokushima for about a day. Unsurprisingly, we stayed mainly in Naruto City, where the majority of the prefecture’s tourist attractions are located.
Before I break down a couple must-see sights in Naruto, I just want to throw a little bonus fun fact for all you cauliflower lovers out there: Tokushima is Japan’s largest supplier of the vegetable!
Onaruto Bridge and the Naruto Whirlpools
The Onaruto Bridge, a.k.a. The Great Naruto Bridge, connects Tokushima to Hyogo Prefecture. If you’re driving into Shikoku from anywhere in or north of the Kansai region, you’ll most likely be passing over this bridge. While my friends and I didn’t know it at the time (well, at least I definitely didn’t know it), the deep recesses of the internet have told me that the Onaruto Bridge is one of the largest bridges in the world. So, if you decide to embark on your own Shikoku road trip, don’t forget to take the time to marvel at this amazing feat of engineering.
The best views of the bridge are from the Seto-Naikai National Park. The park is located directly next to the bridge and the Naruto Whirlpools (What?! Whirlpools!?). You can take a short hike up a fairly small mountain (maybe I should call it a big hill?) and get some great shots of the bridge.
Alright, you’re probably wondering why I’m calling this bridge a “tourist attraction.” Well, maybe if you’re a hashi otaku, you get me. Wait, what’s a hashi otaku, Gwyneth?
Great question, so I’m going to push pause on my road trip diary for a second and explain the term for you. “Otaku” roughly translates to “a nerd” or “a fanatic.” So, if you’re a manga otaku, you’re obsessed with comic books. If you’re a densha otaku, you’re obsessed with trains. If you’re a hikouki otaku, you’re obsessed with planes. I’m guessing you can figure out what hashi otaku means now. I actually don’t know if a hashi otaku is a real thing. But, since densha otaku and hikouki otaku both exist, I’m going to assume it does.
Anyhow, why am I telling you about this random bridge, right?
What makes the Onaruto Bridge so special is what’s built into its south side – a promenade and observation room. Visitors can walk underneath the passing trucks and cars along a pathway called the Uzu no Michi (Whirlpool Road). From this pathway, you can see the famous Naruto Whirlpools.
The Welcome, Shikoku! website states that, with a velocity of more than 20 km/h, the whirlpools are the most powerful tidal current in the world. If you’re considering visiting, keep in mind that the whirlpools are most visible at high and low tides. The walkway tends to get crowded during these times, so you may want to stake up a good spot a little early. Otherwise you may find yourself standing on your tippy toes trying to catch a glimpse out the window while an obachan (grandma) is elbowing you in the ribs.
We just checked out the whirlpools from the bridge, but if the Uzu no Michi isn’t close enough for you, there are also sightseeing boats that take you right up next to the whirlpools. The boats looked fairly crowded from the bridge and I think it’s safe to say that you’ll definitely get wet!
Ryozen-ji: The Start of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage
Every year around 100,000 henro, or pilgrims, visit Shikoku to participate in the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage – the most famous pilgrimage route in Japan.
You Americans may picture men with broad, white collars and women in bonnets when you hear the word, “pilgrim.” However, these pilgrims definitely don’t look or act like they just got off a multi month journey across the Atlantic. These pilgrims also aren’t necessarily ultra religious Buddhists. All kinds of people attempt the Shikoku 88 Temple pilgrimage – hikers, cultural aficionados, and perhaps those just seeking some solitude and self-discovery.
Furthermore, in recent years the number of people who actually walk the route is heavily declining. Many tour buses bring quasi-pilgrims (maybe I shouldn’t call them that?) to all the temples on the route.
But, regardless of their motivation for attempting the pilgrimage and the method in which they complete it, most henro start their 1,200 km journey at Temple 1: Ryozen-ji.
Ryozen-ji, which translates to “Vulture Peak Temple,” is a member of the esoteric Shingon Buddhism sect, which was founded by the monk Kukai (posthumously titled Kobo Daishi). The sect originated on Koya-san – a mountain in Hyogo prefecture scattered with Buddhist monasteries and temples.
(Side note: If you’re wondering why Koya-san sounds familiar, it may be because I wrote a blog post back in August about my trip there! 😉 )
Although it is not a requirement that you begin your pilgrimage at Ryozen-ji, most henro do start here – perhaps because of its proximity to Koya-san, where many first visit to pay their respects to Kobo Daishi. After following a clockwise route around the island, pilgrims return to the first temple to properly complete their pilgrimage. On foot, the journey usually takes around five to seven weeks to complete.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit dozens of temples throughout my years living in Japan, but Ryozen-ji was different. It was quieter. It was less extravagant. It felt like a place people go for prayer and peace, rather than photographs and beauty. Although, to be fair, I did take a lot of pictures. I guess I’m a hypocrite.
I really loved my road trip to Shikoku – just one blog left!
Till next time, take care!